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My head can fit only so many pellets of terrible news coming in one ear before it gets stuffed enough that they start spewing out the other. Yet, somehow, the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal has refused to depart. It’s been ricocheting in my mind for several weeks, and it disgusts me just as much today as it initially did. I understand that some in the world of business would tell me to get a grip. They might even repeat the memorable recent words of Jeb Bush, “Stuff happens.” In truth, the stuff of diesel pollution is more collectively deadly than any deranged shooter, though it’s obviously a less personal and poignant harm, and harder to see.
Yes, many other corporations have perpetrated their own versions of what VW did. But that mustn’t keep us from scrutinizing it closely, and, I suggest, collectively shaming the company into making it right.
Do I really mean shaming? Yes.
In truth, the stuff of diesel pollution is more collectively deadly than any deranged shooter...
Shame has many harmful uses — for example in abusive families, or in caste or class hierarchies where it’s spread-on-thick as a way to silence those with less power. But shame’s one big, positive civic function is to define what’s collectively unacceptable: those behaviors so destructive to the common good that they need to be vociferously called out.
Shame on you, VW, for intentionally violating public trust. Creating software that hides the real pollution emission levels of your diesel engines isn’t even close to okay. You have exploited and profited from people’s wish to do their part cutting ozone, and slightly tempering climate change. You deliberately misled car buyers. And you knowingly sacrificed the quality of our planet’s air, land and water, and the health of all our lungs, to your bottom line.
These are shameful acts, and you need to make it right. It’s not enough to paper it over; or to hire a battalion of lawyers to minimize your financial losses and the damage to your reputation; or two battalions of clever advertising pros to reposition your image.
Embrace your responsibility to help care for the world instead of just profit mongering. I challenge you to use the crisis for a turning point moment -- toward more green and less greed — by making a societal repair that is sincere, transparent, overarching and that can be pointed to as a model of integrity.
“Repair” is a world-class word. Famous baby researcher, Edward Tronick, and other psychologists have observed that the difference between the best caretakers and the worst is in their ability — or not — to repair the moments when a relationship breaks down. This observation is so acute and essential, I believe it deserves to move from the nursery into the larger world. I might even nominate it to become the gold standard for civil society — and for our dealings with each other. Slipshod is no good. Moving on hastily won’t do it. Good caretaking requires genuine repair.
When a person -- or a corporation, or a nation -- commits a crime, instead of simply deciding on a fine or a jail term, let’s demand a meaningful repair.
When a person — or a corporation, or a nation — commits a crime, instead of simply deciding on a fine or a jail term, let’s demand a meaningful repair. Not generic community service, but something specific that speaks to the damage that has been done. I understand the devil would be in the details, but the premise is invaluable. It’s good for the society and for those who’ve been harmed; and it’s good for the person or group that’s caused the harm.
What might that mean for VW? I’m sure many people have ideas. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Buy back — at their original price — the diesel cars that consumers want to shed. Clean up the engines in the ones they want to keep.
2. Work with scientists to figure out a way to take out of the air all the pollutants illicitly dumped into it. Then remove 10 percent more. Or, if cleaning the air is truly not possible, give billions of dollars to asthma and lung cancer research. Or to public transportation. Here in Boston, we could use some major help with ours.
3. Finally, I suggest that VW pledge to design and manufacture green, clean cars that can be sold without deceit, whether they make a big profit or not.
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